by Daniel Pipes
During a meeting with leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1976, Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad referred to Palestine as a region of Syria, as Southern Syria. He then went on to tell the Palestinians: “You do not represent Palestine as much as we do. Do not forget one thing: there is no Palestinian people, no Palestinian entity, there is only Syria! You are an integral part of the Syrian people and Palestine is an integral part of Syria. Therefore it is we, the Syrian authorities, who are the real representatives of the Palestinian people.”
Although unusually candid, this outburst exemplifies a long tradition of Syrian politics, and one that has gained increasing importance in recent years. The Asad government presents itself as not just an Arab state protecting the rights of the Palestinians but as the rightful ruler of the land that Israel controls. According to this view, the existing republic of Syria is but a truncated part of the Syrian lands; accordingly, the government in Damascus has a duty to unite all Syrian regions, including Palestine, under its control.
The growth in Syrian military capabilities in recent years makes these ambitions a major source of instability throughout the Levant. Indeed, the Syrian claim to “Southern Syria” has become central to the Arab-Israeli conflict; Syrian has become not only Israel’s principal opponent, but also the PLO’s. Damascus is likely to retain this role for many years, certainly as long as Hafiz al-Asad lives, and probably longer.
When Asad uses the term Southern Syria, he implicitly harks back to the old meaning of the name “Syria.” Historically, “Syria” (Suriya or Sham in Arabic) refers to a region far larger than the Syrian Arab Republic of today. At a minimum, historic Syria stretches from Anatolia to Egypt, and from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea. In terms of today’s political geography, it comprises all of four states-Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon-as well as the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and substantial portions of southeastern Turkey. To distinguish this territory from the present Syrian state, it is known as Greater Syria.
Until 1920, Syria meant Greater Syria to everyone, European and Middle Easterner alike; For example, an early nineteenth-century Egyptian historian, ‘Abd ar-Rahman al-Jabarti, referred to the inhabitants of El Arish in the Sinai Peninsula as Syrians. Palestine was called Southern Syria first in French, then in other languages, including Arabic. The 1840 Convention of London called the area around Akko “the southern part of Syria” and the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (published in 1911) explains that Palestine “may be said generally to denote the southern third of the province of Syria.” These examples could be multiplied a thousand-fold.
Greater Syria conjured up a geographic unit, not a political entity. Like Scandinavia or New England, Greater Syria was an abstraction, an ecological and cultural unit. It had never assumed political form; indeed, no one had even tried to establish a Greater Syrian state as such. The last time the whole area had been ruled from Damascus was during the Umayyad Dynasty, which fell in the year 750. But when the British conquered Greater Syria during World War I, aided by the Arab forces of the Hashemite Prince Faysal, the possibility of achieving Syrian unity came to the fore.
Indeed, from the moment Prince Faysal set up a government in Damascus in October 1918, he stressed that Palestine was a part of Syria. At the Paris Peace Conference, where the British, French and Americans sorted out their interests after the war, Faysal called Palestine his “right hand” and promised to work for it as he would for Syria and Iraq. “I assure you, according to the wishes of its people, Palestine will be a part of Syria.” Three months later, Faysal wrote General Edmund Allenby that Palestine “is an inseperable [sic] part of Syria.”
Faysal was hardly alone in this view. His rival Shukri Ghanim, an advocate of French rule in Syria, declared Palestine “incontestably the Southern portion of our country.” Two General Syrian Congresses identified Palestine by name as an integral part of Syria. The first called for “no separation of the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine;” the second unanimously proclaimed “the complete and unconditional independence of our country Syria, including Palestine, within its natural boundaries.” Faysal sent agents to Palestine to boost his standing and Damascus became a major center of anti- Zionist rhetoric and activity.
Significantly, the view of Palestine as Southern Syria was not limited to Syrians; from the end of 1918, almost all the Arabs of Palestine agreed on this point. Their enthusiasm for union with Syria greatly enhanced the legitimacy of this concept and did much to make it endure.
The three main political organizations in Palestine-the Arab Club, the Literary Club, and the Muslim-Christian Association (the lack of mention of Palestine in their names is revealing) — all worked for union with Syria. The first two went farthest, calling outright for rule by Prince Faysal. Amin al-Husayni was president of the Arab Club; the extremism which later made him notorious as the leader of Palestinian separatism (and an ally of Hitler) already showed itself in 1920, when he instigated riots for union with Syria. A member of the Arab Club, Kamil al-Budayri, co-edited from September 1919 the newspaper Suriya al-Janubiya (“Southern Syria”) which advocated Palestine’s incorporation into Greater Syria.
Even the Muslim-Christian Association, an organization of traditional leaders-men who expected to rule if Palestine became independent-demanded incorporation in Greater Syria. Its president insisted that “Palestine or Southern Syria-an integral part of the one and indivisible Syria-must not in any case or for any pretext be detached.” The Muslim-Christian Association held a Congress in early 1919 to draw up demands for the Paris Peace Conference. It declared that Palestine, a “part of Arab Syria,” is permanently connected to Syria through “national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic, and geographical bonds,” and resolved that “Southern Syria or Palestine should not be separated from the independent Arab Syrian government.” Musa Kazim al-Husayni, Head of the Jerusalem Town Council (in effect, mayor) told a Zionist interlocutor in October 1919: “We demand no separation from Syria.” The slogan heard everywhere in 1918-19 was “Unity, Unity, From the Taurus [Mountains in Turkey] to Rafah [in Gaza], Unity, Unity.”
The same appeal echoed from distant corners too; from San Salvador, of all places, a protest in 1919 went out from “Syrian Palestinians” to international leaders calling for “no separation between Syria and Palestine.”
Palestinian interest in Pan-Syrian unity peaked during the early months of 1920. One speaker at the General Palestinian Congress suggested that Palestine stood in relation to Syria as Alsace-Lorraine to France. The Congress passed four resolutions. The first of them noted that “it never occurred to the peoples of Northern and Coastal Syria that Southern Syria (or Palestine) is anything but a part of Syria.” The second called for an economic boycott of the Zionists in “all three parts of Syria” (meaning French Syria, Mt. Lebanon, and the Palestine mandate). The third and fourth resolutions called for Palestine “not to be divided from Syria” and for “the independence of Syria within its natural borders.”
The crowning of Faysal as King of Syria in March 1920 elicited great enthusiasm among the Arabs of Palestine. Participants in a mass demonstration in Jerusalem carried pictures of Faysal and called for unity with Syria. Amin al-Husayni, just back from Damascus, incited the crowds with (false) news that the British government recognized Faysal as ruler of Palestine as well as Syria.
Why did Palestinians accept Southern Syria and submission to Damascus? In large part because this was their traditional identity; also because they thought they would gain from connections to Damascus. The Palestinians regarded Faysal as the only Arab leader capable of resisting the Jewish influx into Palestine; as a group of Palestinian expatriates observed, “If Syria and Palestine remain united, we will never be enslaved by the Jewish yoke.”
But Britain and France disregarded these sentiments and divided Greater Syria between them in April 1920. Then they subdivided their territories: the British part became Palestine and Transjordan; the French part became Lebanon, Syria, and several smaller units.
Although the advocates of Greater Syria had lost, they did not give up. Interest in union between Syria and Palestine remained strong on both sides for years to come. Indeed, there was hardly any reduction in interest on the Syrian side. During the 1920s, the most prominent nationalist organization, the Syro-Palestinian Congress, regarded Palestine as Southern Syria. But Syrian nationalists had to contend with their new French masters and could do little about their South Syria ambition. Activity abated for some time, to emerge again only in 1936-39, with the Arab revolt in Palestine.
The revolt captured the imagination of Syrians. Damascus sponsored “The General Command of the Arab Revolt in Southern Syria (Palestine).” Led by a Syrian army officer, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, this 300-man unit fought alongside Palestinians in 1936. In return for Syrian backing, a leader of the revolt, ‘Arif ‘Abd ar-Raziq called himself “Commander-in-Chief of the Rebels in Southern Syria.” Under Syrian pressure in 1938, the “Bureau of the Arab Revolt in Palestine” changed the “Palestine” in its name to “Southern Syria.”
Although Syrian interest in Palestine survived the imposition of European control without reduction, Palestinian interest in Syria diminished markedly. When news of the British and French agreement to split Palestine from Syria reached Palestine, it prompted a flood of protests calling for a united Syria from Turkey to the Sinai Peninsula. But after the French took Damascus in July 1920, the attraction of a Syrian connection disappeared. Why be joined to Damascus if that meant being tied to a French mandate? Palestinian leaders recognized that they were on their own against the British and the Zionists. Musa Kazim al-Husayni made this point only days after Faysal fell: “After the recent events in Damascus, we have to effect a complete change in our plans here. Southern Syria no longer exists. We must defend Palestine.” As this remarkably candid statement indicates, tactical considerations had much to do with the rapid collapse of Pan-Syrian sentiment and its replacement by a nascent Palestinian separatism. Making Palestine a political unit had limited appeal among the residents of Palestine at the time but it did serve a purpose; it allowed Palestinian leaders to present themselves to the British as equals of the Zionists.
Still, many years were to pass before Palestine meant as much as Southern Syria to most people. Continued reference to Greater Syria-even in appeals to the West-confirms this point. Two Palestinian legations meeting with Winston Churchill in 1921 called for Palestine not be separated from her Arab- neighboring sister-states and the Fourth Arab Palestine Congress called for a Palestinian delegate to be sent to demand Syrian unity from the League of Nations. The Fifth Congress heard that “the inhabitants of Southern Syria see themselves and their land as an inseparable part of the rest of Syria,” and a report by the Executive Committee of the Palestine Arab Congress in 1924 refers to “the one country of Syria” and calls Palestine “Southern Syria.”
The memory of Faysal and his dream of being king of Greater Syria retained its impact in Palestine for years. Palestinians mourned Faysal’s death in September 1933 and took the occasion to recall their hopes for his kingdom; similarly, the first anniversary of his death prompted many expressions of grief. Even afterwards, the goal of Greater Syria continued to find a wide audience; Palestinian exile groups, for example, still portrayed Palestine as Southern Syria. The Palestine National League of New York asserted in 1922 that “the Palestinians ask only to be left alone with their fellow Syrians to develop the resources of their province which has been an integral part of Syria for two thousand years.” Even George Antonius, the leading Palestinian theorist of Pan-Arab nationalism, accepted this formulation. Meeting with David Ben-Gurion in 1936, he argued that “there was no natural barrier between Palestine and Syria, and there was no difference between their inhabitants.” Antonius denied the existence of a Palestinian unit, stressing instead Greater Syria from the Taurus Mountains to the Sinai Desert. Ben- Gurion concluded that Antonius’ true interest was in the fate of Syria, not Palestine. Such support among Palestinians helped legitimate Syrian claims.
As the European exit from Syria and Palestine grew near in the 1940s, Syrian hopes of absorbing “Southern Syria” increased. The Syrian premier, Sa’dallah al-Jabiri, declared in September 1944 that “the Syrian problem concerns four regions: Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan.” Faris al-Khuri, Syria’s delegate to the United Nations, called for Palestine’s union with his country on the grounds of racial, cultural, and historical ties. A spokesman for the Syrian Legation in Washington stated in 1946, that “Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan are separated by artificial borders.” Again, such examples could be multiplied many times.
The United Nations decision of November 1947 to partition Palestine led to riots in Damascus and Aleppo. Soon thereafter, Syrians organized volunteer forces to fight the Zionists. Fawzi al-Qawuqji again lead the Syrian troops. His forces began infiltrating Palestine in January 1948, five months before the British left, and quickly took control of territory in northern Palestine. When the British finally left and the State of Israel was declared in May 1948, regular Syrian forces invaded. Syrian forces won small areas in the territory allotted to Israel. Revealingly, these were quickly incorporated into Syria itself-not administered as part of Palestine (which was how Egypt administered its Gaza conquests from 1948 to 1967).
The failure to destroy Israel was a blow to Greater Syrian aspirations, but it did not eliminate them. The Syrian attitude that Palestine belonged to them reemerged during the Armistice Conference of 1949, when Syria and Israel were making arrangements to end hostilities. A Syrian delegate announced that “there is no international border between Israel and Syria. There was a political border between Syria and Palestine. We have to sign an armistice agreement not on the basis of a political border, but on the basis of an armistice line.” To this day, indeed, maps of the Syrian armed forces show no international border between Syria and Israel, only a “temporary” border separating Syria from a region called Palestine.
Nevertheless, notions of joining Palestine to Greater Syria were muted after Israel’s creation. This resulted from three factors: Syrian regimes were exceptionally unstable and weak between 1949 and 1970 and so in no position to pursue irredentist claims; during these years, Damascus was the prey of expansionary efforts, not the hunter. Second, Israel’s strength of arms discouraged military confrontation. Third, the period between 1956 and 1967 marked the heyday of Pan-Arabism, a time when all eyes were on Jamal ‘Abd an-Nasir and the program of Arab unification; the more modest aims of Greater Syria were nearly forgotten.
Even during those years, however, Syrian claims to its southern region were vented from time to time, particularly at the United Nations. In 1956, the General Assembly was told “that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria.” During the Six Day War of June 1967, Syria’s delegate to the Security Council declared that it was Syria “from which Palestine was severed and from the territory of which Israel was created. . . . When the world persecuted the Jews, they found a homeland in my country, Syria.” These assertions were also heard in more private discussions. But they were ineffectual posturings; the claim to Southern Syria appeared dead.
Among Palestinians, too, the view of Palestine as a region of Greater Syria weakened. Palestine came to be seen either as an independent polity or as a province of a united Arab world; the intermediary level of Greater Syria seemed to have disappeared for good.
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But it did not. Hafiz al-Asad rose to power in 1970. Coming from a despised minority sect, he needed to keep the conflict with Israel going to shore up his domestic position. Of the three factors that had weakened the Syrian claim to Palestine after 1949, two had passed. Asad established a powerful police state, ending the era of domestic instability and foreign weakness. Under Asad, Syria become a predator. Second, Asad had room to experiment ideologically, for Pan-Arabism had been discredited by events: the failure of Syria’s 1958-61 union with Egypt, the war in Yemen, and the Arabs’ 1967 military debacle at the hands of Israel.
The third factor-Israel’s strength-remained unchanged after Asad came to power in 1970. So he developed a new approach: knowing full well that Israel was not going to be destroyed, the Syrian leader targeted the fractured Palestinian movement instead. Southern Syria became a tool to be employed against the PLO. To be sure, Asad does on occasion bellow directly against Israel; earlier this year he threatened that if Israel annexes the Golan Heights, “we will work to put the Golan in the middle of Syria and not on its borders,” raising the possibility that he would extend Syria to the Red Sea.
For the most part, however, the Syrian regime does not use Greater Syria as a way to confront Israel; instead, it uses this claim to assert its right to control those parts of Palestine not under Israeli rule. This places Damascus in direct conflict with the PLO (as well as the Jordanian government). Asad’s persistent attacks on the PLO are the heart of his strategy to stay in the conflict with Israel. His attacks take two complementary forms: verbal claims and financial and military manipulation. Words justify Syrian expansion; force backs up the rhetoric.
The claim to Palestine has two parts. It begins with a rejection of the PLO’s right to lead the Arabs to Palestine. Asad broached an argument in 1976 that he still uses: the PLO no longer acts in the best interests of the Palestinian people. The Syrian government ascribes PLO deviance to a variety of problems: loss of purpose (“I cannot imagine what the connection is between the fighting of Palestinians in the highest mountains of Lebanon and the liberation of Palestine”), treachery (“‘Arafat acceded to becoming a U.S. tool against Palestine and Palestinian rights”), and cowardice (“Arafat and his supporters actually wanted to leave Beirut on the first days of the  war. We told them we were against their departure and advised them to stay and resist”). Due to its misbehavior, the argument goes, the PLO forfeited its right to lead the Palestinian cause or to claim Palestine.
The latter part of the argument shows why Syria-rather than Jordan, Egypt, or some other state-deserves to inherit the PLO role. The Asad government offers three complementary reasons to support this claim: devotion to Palestine, correct strategy, and geographic ties.
First, as the self-proclaimed “heart, mind, shield, and sword” of Palestine and “the main state of confrontation,” Syria is the natural leader of the struggle against Israel. Radio Damascus can wax poetic on this subject, calling Syria “the defender of the Palestinian issue, the shelter of the Palestinian revolution, the refuge of the Palestinian strugglers, the lungs with which the Palestinian resistance breathes, and the arena which lovingly opens its doors, heart, and capabilities to the sons of the Palestinian people.” It declares that “Syria will do everything possible to protect its self- defense, because to a great extent its self-defense embodies the entire Arab defense.” Past, present, and anticipated sacrifices entitle Syria to a decisive role. Asad asked: “How can the Palestine question not be ours, even though we are placing all of this country’s human, military, economic, and political resources at the service of this question?”
Second, alone of the front-line states, Syria has the right strategy. While other states have one by one betrayed the cause by accepting Israel’s existence, Syria has remained resolute. Asad takes credit for preventing the PLO from going this route: “Had it not been for Syria, the PLO would have agreed to the Camp David plan.”
Third, and most important, Syrian leaders and (the state-run) media hold that Palestine is geographically part of Syria. Asad likes to startle Western visitors by telling them that “Jesus Christ was a Syrian Jew.” In a major speech in March 1974, he re-launched the “Palestine is Southern Syria” campaign, stating that “Palestine is not only a part of the Arab nation, but a principal part of Southern Syria.” (Jordan is clearly the less principal part.)
This claim has been expressed many times since. A Damascus newspaper noted on the eve of a visit by the Lebanese president to Damascus later in 1976 that the two presidents would “examine new ties between Lebanon and its sister Syria, both those states’ ties with Jordan, as well as the ties of all these with Palestine.” The paper also suggested the creation of a federal state for all four, with one army and one cabinet. A few months later, another newspaper included the Turkish region of Hatay, formerly Alexandretta, in Greater Syria as well: “the southern portion, that is Palestine, was severed from this steadfast country: it has lost Alexandretta, and Lebanon, and Jordan.” A Ba’th Party official stated in May 1978 that “the question of Palestine is strictly a Syrian issue and [only secondly] an Arab security issue.” In March 1980, the Syrian prime minister declared in an interview that “to Syria, the Palestine question is not just the issue of a fraternal people but a Syrian issue.” And so on, and on.
Syrian leaders like to recall the history of Greater Syria and its divisions-often when addressing a foreign audience. Just before President Francois Mitterrand arrived in Syria in November 1984, Hafiz al-Asad bitterly recalled that “when France entered our countries they were united; when it left, they were disunited.” American officials have gotten an earful too. Henry Kissinger recounts that when he visited Damascus as Secretary of State in February 1974, ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam “could not forgo the opportunity to explain that historically Palestine had been part of Syria.”
Operationally, the claim to Palestine affects Syrian relations with both Jordan and the PLO. According to Jordanian sources, in July 1980, the Syrian foreign minister insisted that his government be included, along with Jordan and the PLO, on a committee dealing with the affairs of the “occupied homeland” in Palestine.
Most of the time, Syria is in conflict with the PLO and their debate is conducted in code. The PLO asserts a right to “independent decisionmaking” on the basis of its national autonomy, Damascus denies this right on the basis of Syrian or Arab national rights; in fact, they are arguing over the PLO’s right to act contrary to Syrian wishes. Thus, Khalil al-Wazir, a leading PLO official, stated in August 1985 that “the Syrian regime wants to seize the independent Palestinian decisionmaking power. This is Syria’s main obsession because we refuse to be under its control and hegemony and because we say no to it.” PLO leaders only occasionally say what is really on their mind. ‘Arafat claims that Damascus “stabbed the Palestinian revolution in the back, tried to confiscate its arms and offices, and is trying to confiscate the revolution itself.” A pro-PLO writer observed, accurately: “Some say that the Syrian leaders want to revive the Greater Syria plan, provided it is ‘made in Damascus’-having always rejected it in the past when it was ‘made in Amman’ or ‘made in Baghdad.'”
For his part, Asad has accused the PLO of “concocting a plot through the slogan of independent Palestinian decision making” and a Damascus newspaper editor threatened to “amputate the fingers of whoever exercises decisionmaking contrary to [the Syrian] course. We will not tolerate freedom to commit treason or to sell out the cause. Palestine is Southern Syria.”
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This barrage of words is supported by ambitious efforts by Damascus to control the Palestinian organizations. The PLO is weak and fractured, and Asad takes full advantage of the opportunities this creates.
To keep a finger in the budding Palestinian separatist movement in the mid-1960s, Damascus aided Yasir ‘Arafat’s Fatah. When ‘Arafat reduced his dependence on Syria by winning support from Egypt, Damascus countered by helping the Palestine Liberation Front, led by a former engineering officer in the Syrian army, Ahmad Jibril. This small organization, which later became the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), has continued to work closely with the Syrian government. Asad has also sponsored parts of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) since its establishment in 1964. Ostensibly the conventional military wing of the PLO, the PLA’s three brigades have actually been directly controlled by Arab governments. The Syrian Ministry of Defense has run the Hittin Brigade since its founding in 1964. The Qadisiya Brigade began as an Iraqi tool and passed under Syrian control in 1971. (The ‘Ayn Jalut Brigade remains under Egyptian control.)
But As-Sa’iqa, founded in December 1968, has been Syria’s main Palestinian vehicle. Established to amalgamate the Palestinian organizations sponsored by Syria, it soon became the second largest group in the PLO. From 1970 until his assassination in 1979, Sa’iqa was run by Zuhayr Muhsin, a long- term member of the Syrian Ba’th Party and ally of Hafiz al-Asad. Muhsin’s takeover coincided with Asad’s purge of Sa’iqa and the imposition of his direct control over the organization.
To assure complete control over Sa’iqa, Damascus staffed it with members of the Syrian Ba’th Party. Many of Sa’iqa’s troops were Syrian citizens who signed up with Sa’iqa after finishing their regular tour of duty. Indeed, Syrians make up about 50 percent of the soldiers and 75 percent of the officers. Some of Sa’iqa’s training takes place at the Political Officers’ Training School; Syrian army instructors teach them guerilla tactics and how to handle antiaircraft equipment. Further, Sa’iqa’s equipment is almost all provided by the Syrian army; needless to say, the Syrian government foots the whole of Sa’iqa’s expenses. Sa’iqa acts as Syria’s agent within the Palestinian movement, and its aims are identical with those of Syria. Sa’iqa’s activities in the Middle East and Western Europe were authorized, and probably planned, by Syrian military intelligence units.
In March 1975 Asad proposed “to establish a single Syrian-Palestinian political leadership [and] military command;” ‘Arafat refused this offer, rightly understanding it as a veiled attempt to dominate the PLO. A similar offer in 1982 was again turned down. Asad sent troops against the PLO in Lebanon in 1976 to this same end. On several occasions, Asad tried to replace Yasir ‘Arafat as head of the PLO with Zuhayr Muhsin. One reason for the Syrian invasion of Lebanon in 1976 — as well as for all the subsequent interventions-was a desire to reduce the PLO’s stature.
The total obedience of the PFLP-GC, the PLA brigades, and Sa’iqa to the Syrian government became apparent in 1976 when they fought with Syria against ‘Arafat’s PLO. The PLA played an especially prominent role in this fighting; in effect, the ostensible military arm of the PLO was at war with the rest of the organization.
The Syrian government has often manhandled Palestinian leaders who defied its wishes. When a 1966 effort to subject Fatah to Syrian control failed, ‘Arafat and the entire Fatah leadership were thrown in a Syrian jail for over a month. George Habash was jailed for seven months in 1968. Soon after coming to power, Asad had Sa’iqa leaders arrested to bring the organization under his control. ‘Arafat was taken to the Damascus airport and forcibly put on a plane in 1983.
‘Arafat’s wing of the PLO has been attacked on a number of occasions. Activities of Black June during the summer of 1981 were designed to bring the PLO under the Syrian thumb. With greater success, Asad caused a split in Fatah in May 1983 when ‘Arafat insisted on pursuing policies of which he disapproved. Asad dominated the anti-Arafat faction that was organized in Damascus in 1985 as the Palestinian National Salvation Front. Either Abu Nidal or the Palestine National Salvation Front (PNSF), an alliance of anti-‘Arafat Palestinian groups based in Damascus, assassinated a number of ‘Arafat’s men in Europe, including Na’im Khadir in Brussels, Majid Abu Sharar in Rome, and ‘Isam Sartawi in Lisbon. A Palestinian with close ties to ‘Arafat who edited an anti- Syrian weekly in Athens was shot three times from three feet away as he left his apartment building in September 1985. Two Palestinian groups based in Damascus claimed responsibility for the March 1986 assassination of Zafir al- Masri, the newly-appointed mayor of Nablus; in the West Bank itself, however, many residents accused Syrian operatives directly for the crime.
The shooting of a former mayor of Hebron and current member of the PLO Executive Committee, Fahd al-Qawasma, prompted a revealing comment from ‘Arafat. Addressing the dead man at his burial, he said: “The Zionists in the occupied territories tried to kill you, and when they failed, they deported you. However, the Arab Zionists represented by the rulers of Damascus thought this was insufficient, so you fell as a martyr.”
Damascus also does everything possible to foil Palestinian acceptance of a mini-state on the West Bank. The reason is obvious; such a polity, surrounded by Jordan and Israel, would be beyond Syria’s reach and could not easily be dominated by it. The more the PLO shows interest in the West Bank, the greater the competition between the Syrian regime and ‘Arafat’s PLO become.
Damascus’ efforts to arrogate the claim to Palestine for itself mostly takes rhetorical and military forms. But in one case at least, it also takes a legal form. A Syrian decree of October 1984 specified that provisions which allow Syrian nationals to pay a cash substitute for military service also “shall be applied to Palestinian Arabs who, under the laws in force, are considered as Syrians.” Syrian law permits cash substitute only to Syrians living outside Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Thus, a Palestinian living in Jordan is legally considered to be a Syrian and therefore must serve in the Syrian armed forces unless he pays his way out.
Palestinian leaders dependent on Syria must endorse the Greater Syria idea. Zuhayr Muhsin of Sa’iqa did so without reservation: “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. . . . We are one people. Only for political reasons do we underline our Palestinian identity. . . . Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity is there only for tactical reasons.” It is noteworthy that Sa’iqa does not mention Palestine in its name; it argues that Palestine should not be independent, but part of a larger Arab unit led by Syria. The Palestinian radio station in Damascus announced in June 1983 that Syria and Palestine share the same destiny because they are both part of Greater Syria, the one being Northern Syria, the other Southern Syria.
Most explicit and remarkable, however, are the statements by Sabri Khalil al-Banna, known as Abu Nidal, the extremist Palestinian leader who depends on Syrian support. Although ostensibly a Palestinian separatist, Banna repeatedly states that “Palestine belongs to Syria. Like Lebanon, it will be part and parcel of it.” His reasoning goes as follows:
I am an ardent believer in the Greater Syrian state. . . . We [Palestinians] are Syrian citizens. For us, Syria is the mother nation, it is history, society, community, geography. Until recently, half of Lebanon was a region of Syria. As you see, we are true Syrian citizens. I myself have Syrian parents. . . . Greater Syria consists of Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria. A state like Jordan did not exist in Arab history prior to the twenties. Geographically seen, Greater Syria covers the territory from the Turkish border in the north to the whole of Palestine in the south. It is extremely unlikely that these views express Muhsin’s or Banna’s true feelings; all the more impressive, then, that the Syrian authorities succeed in making these men support their ambitions.
So great is Syrian pressure, even PLO leaders not living on Damascus’ money sometimes proclaim Pan-Syrian views that they cannot possibly hold. Hani al-Hasan, an aide to Yasir ‘Arafat, attributed the momentary improvement in Syrian-PLO relations in mid-1977 “to historic relationships between the Syrian group of nations, of which Palestine is the southern part.” In July 1980, three deported West Bank figures arrived in Syria and declared that “Syria and Palestine form one state with one people.”
Greater Syria is not the only basis for the Syrian government to involve itself in the affairs of Palestine. Pan-Arab nationalism (which holds that all Arabic-speaking people form a nation) is one alternative; Pan-Islamic solidarity is another; and some Syrians undoubtedly feel a genuine humanitarian interest in the Arabs of Palestine. These other motives have at times been more important than the urge to build Greater Syria, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. But the most enduring motive since World War I, and certainly the most powerful force in the Asad era, has been the view that Palestine is Southern Syria and rightfully belongs under Damascus’ control.
Of what significance is this view? Does it amount to anything more than a futile dream? After all, military realities make it clear that Asad has little chance of destroying Israel. And even if he did, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and other the Arab states would then contest his victory, while the PLO would continue to agitate for Palestinian separatism. The claim to Southern Syria is likely to remain permanently unfulfilled. For this reason, some analysts conclude that the vision of Southern Syria has no importance.
But this conclusion overlooks the many ways it does influence Damascus’ behavior. For one, Southern Syria explains the extremely bellicose tone that has marked Syrian relations with Zionism through the twentieth century. The irredentist desire to incorporate Palestine in Syria has deep roots; there is in Syria, therefore, a wider popular base of support for anti-Zionism than exists in any other Arab country. The Syrians’ view of Palestine as part of their own country distinguishes them from other Arabic-speaking peoples (such as Egyptians) for whom Palestine is an important and closely related area, but nonetheless a foreign one. To put this in more familiar terms, Egyptians see Palestine as Germans see Austria, while Syrians see it as West Germans see East Germany. This difference accounts for the special Syrian animosity toward Israel, Syria’s leading role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the intensity of so many individual Syrians’ anti-Zionism.
The strength of Pan-Syrian sentiments explains Asad regime policy toward Israel. Asad, the self-appointed guardian of Arab militancy, has led efforts to block Arab peace efforts toward Israel. He has energetically committed Syria to a course of military challenge against Israel by stifling internal dissent, forming a tight alliance with the Soviet Union, and developing the most powerful military machine in the Arab Middle East. The current effort to attain “strategic parity” with Israel implies that Asad is ready to go it alone, if necessary, without relying on assistance from other Arab states.
As we have seen, the claim to Southern Syria also leads to bitter competition with the PLO. If, as Asad believes, Palestine should be under Damascus’ control, there is no room for an independent Palestinian separatist movement. And, indeed, no other Arab state tries to dominate the PLO as does Syria.
One frequently overlooked implication of the claim to Southern Syria concerns the Golan Heights. The Jordanian and Egyptian governments have shown they are willing to live in peace with Israel once the lands they lost in 1967 are retrieved, but not so the Syrian regime. Asad had clearly stated that he will not quit the fight on getting back the Golan Heights. For example, he told the PLO in 1981 that “Syria wants Palestine as much as it wants the Golan. . . . We want Palestine first and the Golan second.” Along similar lines, the Syrian foreign minister vowed not to forget the Golan “because for us it is like any part of Palestine.” This attitude trips up all would-be negotiators between Syria and Israel.
Finally, the popularity of the campaign to control Southern Syria means that Asad does not find himself under the sort of pressure that caused Sadat, King Husayn, and other Arab leaders to seek accommodation with Israel. Again the German analogy fits; just as forty years of separation has not dimmed West German interest in East Germany, so does Syrian interest in Palestine burn strongly. Accordingly, the Syrian government is unlikely at any time in the foreseeable future to acknowledge the permanency of Israel’s existence. And the great power of the Asad government enhances the importance of its irredentist claims on the land that Israel occupies. The simple fact is, Damascus is not ready for negotiations.
But Americans tend not to appreciate this fact. No matter how many times Asad declares his views on Southern Syria, these are too radical, too nakedly aggressive, and too out of line with our expectations to be accepted. Thus, most U.S. officials, journalists, and scholars are reluctant to acknowledge Asad’s view of Palestine as Southern Syria. (Henry Kissinger is a notable exception, having concluded from his 1974 shuttle efforts that the “Syrians considered Palestine part of ‘Greater Syria'”). Forthright statements and blunt actions make little impression; once an American consensus has been formed, it seems to make almost no difference what Syrian authorities say. The notion also persists among the American foreign policy elite that Asad seeks no more than the return of the Golan Heights, despite explicit denials by Asad and his chief aides.
Instead, the elite favors its own interpretation, that Asad is trying to extricate himself from the Palestine imbroglio. According to this line of reasoning, he has no long-term interest in fighting Israel but is merely intent on regaining the lands lost in 1967 (so that he can concentrate on economic development, political reconciliation, and the like). Asad’s grandiose claims are dismissed as “Arab rhetoric”-which the cognoscente wink at and declare unimportant; his huge military build-up is deemed defensive in nature; and his ties to the Soviet Union are seen as transitory and weak. Such views are conducive to U.S. peace initiatives, to be sure; unfortunately, they happen to be wrong.
What do these discouraging words leave a would-be mediator? Not very much. U.S. diplomats can help by taking Syrian irredentism seriously and firmly stating their government’s firm opposition to it. They can help establish confidence building measures between Syria and Israel and they can provide good offices when these are requested. But they cannot mitigate Syrian claims on Israel, much less bring about peace between the two countries.
The real help the United States can provide is military. To the extent that U.S. policy seeks to defuse Syrian-Israeli relations, it must aim at dissuading the Asad regime or its successors from using force; and this is done by raising the costs of aggression. Only if Damascus sees warfare against Israel as too unrewarding will it desist. The United States should keep reminding the Syrian leaders that the balance of forces will not be allowed to deteriorate and it should help maintain this equation. Vigilance and strength, not roseate interpretations, will cause Damascus to desist from pursuing the evil dream of Southern Syria.